Tiffany Carroll finds the best family resort in Fiji. The kids not only have their own mini resort, they get an education while enjoying the activities. Meanwhile the adults relax.
Flying over the coral reefs of Fiji’s north-east I wonder if I am following in Cousteau’s steps. The famed oceanographer’s son Jean-Michel partnered in his eponymous resort in the 1990s and even though it is a cloudy morning, the view from the Fiji Airways twin otter aircraft is spectacular.
Growing up as Jacques Cousteau’s son, I assume Jean- Michel has seen the world’s best reefs, most stunning islands and atolls. What brought him here, to Fiji’s ‘other island’, serviced only by small aircraft and about as far away from Fiji’s large resorts teeming with visitors as you can get?
It’s a 50-minute flight from Nadi airport to Savusavu, the main town on Vanua Levu. Green and blue hues; the odd super yacht and inter-island trading vessel sail through the ink blue water below. Surf is breaking on some of the shallow reefs and I can’t wait to get wet – it’s the water you want to dive straight in to. Completely transparent, gin-coloured and alluring. The aircraft seats just 17 people – all of them today are tourists and on final approach to the airport, each one of them gushes at the stunning scenery of Vanua Levu’s coastline and iridescent water.
Why is it the Pacific’s ‘second islands’ are always the most special? Espiritu Santo in Vanuatu stole my heart many years ago, Savai’i in Samoa is genuinely, to use an over-used cliché, a real untouched paradise and now, I know within 10 minutes of arrival, Vanua Levu in Fiji is also something else.
The drive from the airport takes you through the colonial township of Savusavu, its tidy homes and gardens, passing a waterfront market, small hardware stores, a few waterside restaurants and guesthouses along the way. Before long we arrive at Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Resort.
Today there are no singers to welcome me and, to be honest, it’s a relief. I find the whole welcome song awkward when I’m travelling alone. It’s just not me, standing there the centre of attention, my cheeks blushing crimson red. Instead a couple of staffers walk out and simply say, “You must be Tiffany. Welcome to our village”.
I’d been reading about Jean-Michel Cousteau (or JMC as the staff call it) for years and expected it to be a kid’s paradise. I’d read about nannies for the little ones and a kids club for the older ones, but on arrival, there was not a child to be seen.
Instead it was couples, lying on day beds by the pool, casually having a cocktail by the bar or reading books in the ocean front fares in front of their bures.
I wasn’t disappointed. I like to get away from big resorts with millions of screaming kids (including my own). In fact, we’ve only taken our kids to a big family resort once, on Australia’s Gold Coast, and it took me years to get over it. In fact I’m not sure I have.
General manager Bart Simpson met me on my first day at JMC. The laid-back Aussie has fallen in love with Fiji and, in particular, Savusavu. He’s not a fan of big resorts either and says JMC suits him and his family to a tee.
“My kids grew up here, Savusavu is home to them even now they are schooling in Australia,” he said.
He says what makes Savusavu special is not only the spectacular landscape and its people, but the fact it is so much quieter than Fiji’s main island of Vitu Levi. “We’re 20 years behind and that’s just fine.”
My three days at JMC would be spent experiencing everything the resort has to offer, but started with a fantastic a la carte meal in the resort’s main dining area. JMC has got the balance right between kids and adults; whilst it’s definitely a family resort, parents may choose to dine with their kids in the family section of the restaurant, or leave them with other kids and nannies to dine in the resort’s amazing kid’s Bula Club.
I felt, for the first time in Fiji for work, a pang of guilt that my own kids were missing out on JMC. The Bula Club really is something else. A huge outdoor play area complete with swimming pools, waterslides and even a zipline, plus an indoor area for kids to paint, draw, cook, weave – whatever they choose. There is also a tennis court, outdoor climbing playgrounds and space to run.
Mini resort for the kids
The Bula Club is more of a mini resort for kids than a kids’ club.The furniture is the same as in the adults-only areas of the resort, right down to mini day beds and sun lounges by their three pools.
But the kids aren’t really encouraged to stay in the club; they can of course, but JMC is all about educating kids and the activities include village visits where pen friendships are formed, guided reef walks and snorkelling with a marine biologist, which make up just some of the many free activities on offer.
I joined kids on a visit to a local village; some had their nannies and buddies with them (JMC provides one nanny per child up to five years old and one buddy per five kids aged 6-12), others had mum and dad tag along. Assistant manager Helen Regan told me after the visit the resort helps the village kids keep in touch with their new friends by providing postage and many life long friendships had been formed.
JMC also offers a ‘School under the sea’ program for kids aged six and over. This experiential holiday school allows kids to join in fun and stimulating activities every day and also learn about Fijian culture. Daily activities include coral planting; snorkelling; mangrove adventures; rainforest and waterfall excursions; a visit to a local Fijian school; arts and crafts; a treasure hunt; educational presentations and movies.
At night the kids are quizzed about their days by marine biologist Johnny Singh and not one of them feels like they’re at school.
Kids at JMC climb waterfalls, not walls; there is simply so much to do and whilst they’re entertained and educated, mum and dad can enjoy fine dining, amazing diving, spa treatments, snorkelling, a private island picnic and time out.
The only time you see kids around the resort is when they’re off on an adventure with their buddies. The sight of five little kids following a marine biologist out to the jetty for a snorkel was when I realised, JMC is really the only place I’d want to take my kids on a family holiday – and not for completely selfish reasons either! Time for me to dive, relax and eat, time for them to learn and play and experience the real Fiji. I’m already planning our trip back.